Pump Up Your Immune System

Follow these simple steps to be the type of person who never catches a cold or comes down with the flu.

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Why do you get every bug that passes through town, while your spouse and friends stay healthy? Blame your immune system, the network of cells and organs that fights off illness (or tries to, anyway!).

"How often you get sick is partly genes, plus the bacteria and viruses you're exposed to," says Lisa Cuchara, PhD, professor of biomedical science at Quinnipiac University. "But lifestyle is also key: exercise, sleep, and how stressed you are." Read on for how to get your system in fighting shape.

Strategy #1: Do up your diet
"I see a lot of chronic dieters who are low in protein, which your body needs to make white blood cells, the backbone of the immune system," says Roberta Lee, MD, vice chair of the department of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

Many protein-rich foods, like lean meat and fish, also provide other immunity-boosting nutrients like iron, zinc, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. Also essential: Eating a good mix of produce to get an array of nutrients. What to do:

  • Pile on the protein. Have some at every meal. A sample day's worth: 8 ounces of yogurt at breakfast, a cup of beans with salad at lunch, a handful of almonds for a snack, and 3 ounces of chicken at dinner.
  • Get your daily 8 to 9. Eating this many servings of fruits and veggies may reduce the risk of a cold by about 25 percent, according to research. Aim for at least two colors per meal. One veggie to add: shiitake mushrooms, which may increase natural killer T cells, says Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer of The Cleveland Clinic.
  • Go for fish. Eat salmon, mackerel, or tuna twice a week or more. These fatty varieties are rich in omega-3s, which may reduce your risk of respiratory infection, probably by boosting levels of virus-fighters like helper T cells.
Strategy #2: Pick these pills
The drugstore may be full of so-called immunity boosters, but there's strong evidence for only two of them: vitamin D and probiotics. What to do:

  • Shore up your D-fenses. "Vitamin D seems to boost the production of T cells," Dr. Lee says. Since it's hard to get enough D from food, you'll need a supplement. Most doctors recommend 1,000 IU daily.
  • Pop a probiotic. This supplement can slash your risk of an upper respiratory infection by about 12 percent. "Probiotics may boost white blood cell activity," says Melinda Ring, MD, medical director for integrative medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. So it's worth trying a daily over-the-counter probiotic (take as directed).

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Hallie Levine Sklar
Last Updated: February 05, 2013

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